The recent revival of Erik Chisholm's music has won his compositions widespread critical acclaim, both in the UK and elsewhere. As part of this revival, the present recording of his two piano concertos calls not just for a reassessment of Chisholm, but of modernist music throughout the British Isles. These are both engaging and exciting works-if your ears are anything like mine, you will be playing this many o' times! The "Pìobaireachd" Concerto was recorded some years ago, but this is the first commercial recording of the Hindustani Concerto, which was Chisholm's own favorite. The two works are as highly contrasted as their titles would imply, but they share Chisholm’s profound understanding of the piano and, in their different idioms, his ability to engage with the classical music of the Highland bagpipes on the one hand, and the classical music of Hindustan on the other.
Erik Chisholm was born in Glasgow and brought up in what might be described as a conventional middle-class household; but it was hardly conventional of his parents to allow him to leave school at the age of thirteen to pursue composition, piano and organ, later studying and living with the leading Russian pianist Leff Pouishnoff. From the early days Chisholm was exploring the latest repertoire, premiering Bartok's first Piano Concerto in Glasgow, and also giving Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" its Scottish premiere. Despite differences of opinion about Chisholm's more modernistic tendencies, Pouishnoff was more than willing to recommend Chisholm for a degree course at Edinburgh University: "I beg to certify that Mr Erik Chisholm has studied with me the art of piano playing for a number of years and that in the course of our work together he proved to be the possessor of a keen brain and highly developed intelligence … I may add that my opinion of him as a musician is of a very high degree."
Chisholm obtained his Doctorate in music under the tuition of Donald Tovey. A fine pianist, Chisholm's understanding of piano texture and technique is evident in all his piano works, from the simplest to the most virtuosic. He was also an outstanding organist and an innovative conductor and concert promoter. In Glasgow he gave Mozart's "Idomeneo" and Berlioz's "The Trojans" their British premieres and, amongst others, he brought Hindemith, Casella, Szymanowski, Schmitt, Walton and Bartok to the city. He was dubbed "MacBartok" not because his music could ever be confused with Bartok's, but because he was pursuing a similar compositional course in his handling of Scottish traditional music as did Bartok with the Central European tradition.
Chisholm had started composing variations on Scottish folk-tunes at the age of six, but it was at the age of ten that he was given a copy of Patrick MacDonald's "A Collection of Scottish Airs" published in 1784. So influential was this gift that scarcely a single one of the two hundred airs remained un-arranged by Chisholm in one form or another. Patrick MacDonald was not Chisholm's only source of Scottish traditional music, and he made use of early Scottish lute manuscripts and many published sources, and had a broad knowledge of pìobaireachd (pipe music), examples of which were published in MacDonald's collection.
While Chisholm's primary influence was that of his own native music, he was also greatly influenced by Hindustani music, following his friendship with Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, and a period of service in the Far East during the Second World War. He founded a symphony orchestra in Singapore, and from there went straight to Cape Town, where he was Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Music until his untimely death.
Piano Concerto No. 1 "Pìobaireachd"
Pìobaireachd literally means "pipe music" but refers exclusively to the classical music of the Highland bagpipes, also known as ceòl mór—"the big music". Ceòl mór takes the form of variations on a theme or ùrlar. Ùrlar means "ground", but these themes and the manner in which they are varied are not in any way related to the concept of the ground bass. They are, however, of considerable structural interest, involving their own subtle symmetries, and the variations on them develop with increasingly virtuosic demands upon the fingerwork of the solo piper—for ceòl mór is always played as a solo. Chisholm was fascinated by the form, and composed many works based upon its structure, melody and style, as well as its unique forms of embellishment, which themselves have structural significance.
The earliest version of the Pìobaireachd Concerto dates from 1932. By December 1937 it was revised and, in 1938, first performed in a broadcast from Edinburgh with Chisholm as soloist and Ian Whyte conducting. The first public performance was in the St Andrew's Hall in Glasgow on 20 January 1940, with Chisholm again as soloist and Aylmer Buesst conducting the Scottish Orchestra. Unfit for active service, Chisholm spent the first months of the war painting white lines on the streets and blacking out windows:
"Well, in this painting business I don’t think that my musical training is altogether wasted. When painting lines on steps and along the edge of pavements I lay on the paint as a musical stave—in five lines with four spaces between—and this gives me an advantage over the man who lives as it were only from line to line, doing what must be one of the most monotonous jobs in the world. Looked at in this way, our gang must have ruled enough five lines and four spaces to write the complete works of Bach and Beethoven! … Nor can I complain that my life lacks variety—this morning, for instance, I was helping in blacking-out 1200 large windows in a large building & now I am going off to rehearse my piano concerto with the Scottish Orchestra."
The pìobaireachd on which the first movement—Molto moderato (tranquillo)—is based is Maol Donn, now known as MacCrimmon's Sweetheart. Maol Donn is a lament for the death of a favorite cow and it has an associated pìobaireachd song. Songs in praise of individual animals are common in the Gaelic-speaking world, and with good reason, for its economy has been focused on cattle for thousands of years. Such sentiments may seem odd to some readers in an orchestral context: but we are dealing here with a culture which has retained much of its closeness to nature and which still retained a degree of veneration for cattle, as is the case to this day in the East. Since his mother was a MacLeod, Chisholm would have welcomed the association of this tune with the MacCrimmons, who were the MacLeods's hereditary pipers.
The concerto opens with bassoons supplying the drone, and a solo oboe playing the bagpipe line verbatim. Chisholm's treatment is, however, entirely his own, and one can hear immediately how effectively he has translated the idiom pianistically. The first variation is a much more energetic affair than would be the case in a normal pìobaireachd, the piano soon stamping out the rhythm in the bass, with the tune in the violins and upper wind. There follows a return to the opening tempo with the piano in rhapsodic mood. This, though rarely done at this point in modern pìobaireachd playing, used to be an integral part of the tradition in the eighteenth century. The ensuing variation (Allegretto scherzando) is a jig that brings out a totally different character in the tune. This is followed by a thoroughly joyful passage leading to the cadenza, which runs the jig to ground and, via a ruminative section, prepares us for a return to the opening, but in different guise.
There is no conventional recapitulation of the main theme or, as would also occur in the tradition, the ùrlar. A brief up-swell of feeling—it is marked appassionato—is more in the classical than in the traditional mould, but it captures and extends that moment which, in pìobaireachd, hovers between the elaborate and the simple as the ùrlar returns. For all its liveliness, there is much that is thoughtful and lyrical in this movement, honoring the gentle and beautiful shape of the ùrlar itself.
The second movement, Allegro scherzando, is a wonderfully energetic Scottish dance. It is delivered with a splendid mix of Stravinskian neoclassical techniques and more volatile Bartokian twists, twice grounding itself in a slow powerful passage in the lower register which, on its second appearance, is summarily dismissed with the last gesture of the movement. The tune itself is a lively variation on the pìobaireachd Fàilte Uilleim Dhuibh Mhic Coinnich—The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute.
The slow movement, Adagio, is based upon the famous Cumha Dhomhnuil Bhain Mhic Cruimein—The Lament for Donald Bàn MacCrimmon, for which Chisholm has marked the solo piano to be played 'very distant and impersonal'. This pìobaireachd is reputed to have been composed by Malcolm MacCrimmon on the death, in 1746, of his younger brother, Donald Bàn. Donald Bàn is also the subject of Cha Till MacCruimean. Even if it is not by his brother, we know that when Donald Bàn was previously captured, the pipers on the opposing side refused to play until their own leaders released him, which was duly done. So it is anything but an impersonal pìobaireachd. Indeed, it is written of the famous piper John MacDonald that it 'was almost sacred to him'.
If it was sacred to Chisholm, it was in a very different way. He has enshrined it as though it were indeed a sacred object from the past, announced and concluded by a stroke on a gong, and veiled in mysterious textures. Low flutes set the tone, over which the piano introduces the ùrlar, like a bird in the night, uttering complex cries, brief but haunting, derived from the pìobaireachd. This is then taken up by the oboe and bassoon.
The sense of mystery is continued in the first variation, with the veiled tonal wash of the piano and horn, against which a solo violin, followed by solo clarinet, draws out a long thin line of sound as if from another world. The harmonic and orchestral textures here are rich and strange—sometimes coming like waves of water or light. Throughout it all, phrases from the ùrlar emerge and sink back into the texture. As the music gathers strength, the muted trumpet sings its own lament against rising arpeggios from the soloist, and the inherent riches of the whole burgeon into a climax which suggests a vastness beyond. There is a close similarity between this movement and the latent and sometimes terrifying power of Chisholm's "Night Song of the Bards" for solo piano.
The finale, Allegro con brio, starts as a reel—a quintessentially Scottish dance form which has traditionally involved rhythmic twists as part of its repertoire of tricks. Chisholm is quick to exploit this, with syncopations and notes picked out by additional emphasis, achieved through declamatory orchestral chords where the traditional fiddler would use bow attack or double-stopping. Into this repertoire of standard tricks Chisholm throws chromatic displacement of chords and spirited orchestration, tossing around from section to section fragments of rhythm. And 'rhythm' is the operative word. When asked whether melody or rhythm came first in his music, Chisholm responded: "I rather think the rhythmic impulse is strongest; a definite body stimulus which, by its continued reiteration, induces a feeling of magnetic attraction (or sheer monotony) is a characteristic of the pìobaireachd, and also in my music." The tune is number 16 in the Patrick MacDonald collection, and demonstrates that even a quite uniform pattern, when related to pitch with skill, becomes wonderfully provocative rhythmically.
A more lyrical section follows, with solo piano and woodwind seemingly anticipating Bartok’s third Piano Concerto, anticipations which keep surfacing as the piece gathers energy on its way back to the reel. One moment stamping a foot, the next swirling and turning, with a final fusillade of off-center chords, it ends—anything but exhausted, but with a flourish as if to say 'that is enough for now'.
Taken as a whole, this four-movement work not only introduces a new idiom to the world of the concerto, but also a new type of virtuosity. The piano concerto as a form is riddled with cliche, but in the twentieth century, particularly in the concertos of Bartok, there emerged a new kind of pianism. Chisholm had played the solo part of Bartok's Piano Concerto No 1 in Glasgow, but Bartok had only just completed his Concerto No. 2 on his second visit to Glasgow in November 1933. Chisholm's piano-writing is totally different from both of these works. If there is a Bartok concerto which might be placed alongside Chisholm's No. 1, it is the Third—composed after Bartok had twice stayed with the Chisholms and, intrigued by what he had heard, travelled home with as much pìobaireachd as he could carry, and a bagpipe chanter under his arm.
Piano Concerto No. 2 "Hindustani"
The Hindustani Concerto was completed in 1949 and dedicated to Adolph Hallis. It was first performed at an International Society of Contemporary Music concert in the University of Cape Town on 22 November 1949, with Hallis playing the solo part and Chisholm conducting. The next day it was broadcast by the South Africa Broadcasting Company and, in 1950, by the BBC Scottish Orchestra, again with Hallis as soloist and Chisholm conducting. Schott published a two-piano score in 1951, with several cuts following the 1950 performance, and it was re-orchestrated in 1953 and other alterations made for a further broadcast that year.
In relating Chisholm's music to any particular raga, it should be remembered that a raga is not so much a tune as a melody-type. Each raga has its appropriate season, or time of day or night, and carries with it emotional and even ethical significance, and may be associated with particular colors, or symbolic pictorial associations. Each note has its own character in the context of the particular raga, and the sequence of notes is approached differently according to whether in "aroha" (ascending) or "avaroha" (descending) mode, and according to the mood of the player and the development of the improvisation. The improvisation itself follows fairly strict rules and makes use of important melodic, rhythmic and 'ornamental' formulae; but ultimately it is the player and none other who makes the music, who brings to the ancient formulae life, meaning and originality, as Asad Ali Khan has written: "Each raga has its own character which must be understood and developed in presentation. But the raga itself is only a structure for musical discipline, and to come alive it must be steeped in rasa, the essence of emotion. An artist can invest the notes with any rasa, and the true listener will understand and respond to the musician."
In many of the characteristics listed above, raga resembles pìobaireachd, and to a composer such as Chisholm, who had studied pìobaireachd, the transition from making use of the one to the other, in a Western classical context, will have been relatively easy. The Hindustani Concerto makes use of a different raga for each of its three movements. The Hindustani singer Prakriti Dutta maintained that Chisholm's understanding of these ragas revealed that he had studied them intensively and with real appreciation of their structures and significances.
The first movement (Poco maestoso e con fuoco) is at times troubled and even aggressive in its passions; but there is also mystery, especially in the dialogue between the piano and the timpani. It is based upon Raga Asavari, which is usually played in the morning at about 9 o'clock. The accompanying image is of Asavari, adorned with peacock feathers, seated on top of Mount Malayagiri. Chisholm emphasizes the darker aspects of this raga, the expression of which centers around words such as grave, dignified, melancholy, wise, sober, as well as very tender and loving. Asad Ali Khan describes it as "full of bhakti rasa, devotional and contemplative". Chisholm's own direction of con fuoco—with fire—cannot be easily reconciled with these traditional associations; but as the movement develops, so the music reveals both grave and melancholy aspects, especially in the second subject, enunciated by the piano, and also at the start of the recapitulation in which the theme is given to the clarinet against a throbbing rhythm on the piano.
The piano's opening statement is derived directly from the raga, but almost immediately breaks away into chromatic coloring of the material, which one might construe as Chisholm's way of suggesting the various microtonal inflections that would be part of the expressive technique of a Hindu musician.
Motifs from the raga appear in many guises, sometimes delicate, sometimes dramatic, and the Meno mosso makes use of a transposed version of the aroha (rising motif), but it is part of a complex texture which uses the predominant intervals of the raga (semitones and major thirds) in different transpositions simultaneously. The central climax is in a mood more of desperation than anger. As the storm passes, it leaves behind the rumblings of the timpani, and the soloist falls back in halting rhythms, as though emotionally drained. The music then settles on a pulsating drone in E flat, over which a solo clarinet returns to the opening theme. It is a moment of beauty and mystery which soon reveals that passions are anything but spent. The movement ends with an extended cadenza for the soloist, and a brief orchestral coda.
The second movement is a set of seven variations on a theme based on Rag Shri. It is associated with the months of December and January and with the early evening. The image that goes with it is of a youth of such beauty that women become infatuated, and anger is soothed. But it can also be spiritual in its effect, like a call to evening prayer. In Chisholm's opening statement, the notes of the aroha (ascent) and avaroha (descent) are combined, and accompany a melodic line similarly derived. The movement is a wonderfully compelling exploration of mystery, sensuousness and allure. In particular, the fifth variation draws close to the mood and the mode of Rag Shri, extruding a sinuous line against a rippling ostinato that breaks upon the shores of this exotic music in gentle but urgent waves. The beauty with which Chisholm embellishes the line, with subtle use of repeated notes and tremolo, would surely have created sensations down Sorabji’s spine, and Sorabji might well have preferred to receive the dedication of this work rather than Pictures from Dante, with its vision of Beatrice's heavenly purity. Sorabji was profoundly in love with Chisholm and (although not reciprocating that love) Chisholm's true musical homage is here, for it is in passages such as this that the scent-laden sensuality of Sorabji's own Djâmi drifts into the more austere world of Chisholm and, as the Song of Solomon would have it, steals like little foxes into the heart of the beloved.
In the following variation, the bass clarinet and strings release a rush of passion which, in the final Variation 7, relapses into a dialogue between solo cello and piano—a beautiful submission to, and admission of, irresistible desire.
The third movement is based upon Raga Vasantee, which heralds the coming of spring, and is suggestive of color and celebration. At first, the piano and orchestra seem almost capricious, even bird-like in places, mixing delicacy, wit and energy. But it is the energy that soon takes command of proceedings, leading the movement into a concluding section marked Allegro barbaro, in which Chisholm lets loose the piano and orchestra in a riot of festivity.